Meningococcal disease is an uncommon but serious disease caused by the bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis (more commonly known as meningococcus). It can cause invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) which can result in serious complications or death.
IMD includes meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Meningococcus can also infect other areas, including the lungs, joints and eyes.
Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent meningococcal disease. For further information regarding meningococcal prevention and vaccination, speak with your healthcare professional.
Key disease information
Meningococcal disease refers to the group of illnesses that can be caused by a bacterium commonly known as meningococcus (or Neisseria meningitidis).
Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat in about 10% of the population without causing illness. In a small number of people, the bacteria pass the lining of the throat, enters the bloodstream and consequently causes meningococcal disease.
The infection can develop very quickly, however, if the infection is diagnosed early enough and the right antibiotics are given quickly, many people can make a complete recovery. However, for IMD, between 5–10% of people will die, even with treatment. Others will be left with permanent disabilities including loss of limbs or some form of brain damage.
While meningococcal disease and meningitis are related, they are not the same thing.
Meningitis refers to an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. You can get meningitis from infection with viruses, bacteria and parasites, as well as other non-infectious causes (e.g. injuries, certain drugs, or conditions like lupus). There are two main types of meningitis:
- Viral meningitis (relatively common, most cases are mild and rarely fatal)
- Bacterial meningitis (rare in comparison, but extremely dangerous and can be fatal)
Bacterial meningitis is very serious and requires medical attention as soon as possible. Some common types of bacterial meningitis include:
- Hib meningitis – caused by Haemophilus influenzae tybe b (Hib) bacterium
- Meningococcal meningitis – caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacterium
- Pneumococcal meningitis – caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium
Meningococcal disease refers to a condition caused by the meningococcal bacterium (or, Neisseria meningitidis). Meningococcal disease can include meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord – this lining is called the meninges), and septicaemia (blood poisoning).
Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It is often less severe than bacterial meningitis and most people are able to make a full recovery.
Bacterial meningitis progresses rapidly and can be life-threatening. Bacterial meningitis can lead to permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities) or even death.
It’s very important for anyone experiencing symptoms of meningitis to see their doctor right away- only a doctor will be able to diagnose the disease, including the type of meningitis and the best treatment required, which can prevent serious complications.
Meningococcal bacteria live naturally in the back of the nose and throat of healthy adults and children, and can be quite difficult to spread.
Generally, it takes person-to-person contact to spread these bacteria. The bacteria can be passed from one person to another through respiratory and throat secretions (saliva or spit). For example, prolonged household contact (living in the same house) or intimate contact such as kissing.
Meningococcal bacteria are found only in humans and cannot live more than a few seconds outside of the body. About 10% of people become carriers of the bacteria without causing symptoms or disease, but they can still pass the bacteria on to others.
Meningococcal disease is potentially fatal, urgent medical advice at the nearest hospital is advised if someone displays symptoms of the infections.
- stiff neck
- photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
- poor eating/drinking, low alertness and vomiting (babies)
- cold hands and feet
- severe aches or pains
- rapid breathing
- a dark purple rash in the later stages
Vaccination is the best protection against meningococcal disease – even if you have had meningococcal disease before. This is because immunity does not necessarily last forever.
There are different types of vaccines for the different strains of meningococcal disease. Vaccination against one strain does not provide protection against other strains.
You should speak to your healthcare professional about which vaccinations are appropriate for you.
There are a number of vaccines available in Australia:
- Meningococcal ACWY vaccine – this covers disease caused by A, C, W and Y
- Meningococcal ACWY vaccine is provided free to all infants at 12 months of age on the National Immunisation Program (NIP).
- Meningococcal ACWY vaccine is also available on the NIP for adolescents aged 14 to 16 years through school-based immunisations.
- Meningococcal ACWY vaccine is provided free for people of all ages with specified medical conditions
- Meningococcal B vaccine – this covers disease caused by the B strain.
- Meningococcal B vaccine is available on the NIP for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATIS) infants
- Catch up vaccination will be available for ATSI children aged <2 years until 30 June 2023
- Meningococcal B vaccine is provided free for people of all ages with specified medical conditions
For further information on available vaccines, speak with your healthcare professional.
Depending on where you travel, your healthcare professional may recommend a meningococcal vaccine to protect you from the disease. Some areas that have high levels of meningococcal disease include sub-Saharan Africa. Saudia Arabia also requires all participants in the annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage to show proof of meningococcal vaccination.
No, meningococcal disease can affect people of all ages.
However, those at most risk include infants and young children, particularly those under 2 years of age, (due to their less mature immune system and tendancy to put things in their mouth and share food, drink and toys), as well as teenagers and young adults, especially 15-19 years of age, due to the socially interactive lifestyle they tend to lead.
Sources & Citations
1.Australian Immunisation Handbook. Meningococcal disease. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/meningococcal-disease (accessed December 2021).
2. Better Health. Victoria State Government. Meningococcal disease. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/meningococcal-disease (accessed December 2021).
3. NSW Government. Department of Health. Meningococcal disease factsheet. Available at: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Factsheets/meningococcal.pdf (accessed December 2021).
4. Australian Government Department of Health. Invasive meningococcal disease. Available at: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-meningococcal-W.htm (accessed December 2021).
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningitis. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html (accessed December 2021).
6. Queensland Government. Meningitis (all types). Available at: http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/media/pdf/8/118/92/meningitis-all-types-v12 (accessed December 2021).
7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Viral meningitis. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/viral.html (accessed December 2021).
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meningococcal disease – Signs and symptoms. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/symptoms.html (accessed December 2021).
9. Australian Government, Department of Health. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/immunisation-throughout-life/national-immunisation-program-schedule#national-immunisation-program-schedule-from-1-july-2020 (accessed December 2021).
10. Aust. Govt. Dept Health. Australian Meningococcal Surveillance Programme Annual Report, 2020. Commun Dis Intell (2018) 2021;45. Available at https://doi.org/10.33321/cdi.2021.45.46 Accessed January 2022
MAT-AU2102476 Date of preparation January 2022Show All